Category Archives: dystopia

The Age of Miracles & maintaining a sense of self

Months ago I saw the book The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walkder and added it to books I wanted to read, namely because it sounded like a good next step for my 8th graders who had read every futuristic, dystopian novel in the young adult section and were ready for an adult level book.  I ran into it the while browsing in the digital books collection of the Brooklyn Public Library and decided it should be my first library ebook.

The premise of the story is that one seemingly typical morning, people wake up to a news story that states the rotation of the earth has shifted and minutes have been added onto the day.  This continues and throws the entire world into a frenzy as the governments decide to remain on 24 hour clock-time which, as the days grow longer, can mean the waking “day” is completely in the dark and the sun is shining brightly while people are sleeping at “night.”  Of course there are people who decide to rebel and let their circadian rhythms readjust, but soon the days become 48 hours long.  Some people become afflicted with sickness, tides are shifted way off and coasts flood, the magnetic field is damaged and the sun’s rays become so dangerous that people do not walk into the sun anymore.

What I kept thinking about was that even though there were life changing and life threatening conflicts, people needed to maintain a sense of self in the face of it all–and that may be what enables them to face the conflicts with courage. This made me start thinking about when everything in life feels like it is being thrown off–when the earth’s rotation in this story is like a metaphor for our lives–how do we cope?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of taking the time to do the things that are good for my soul–even if that means not finishing everything on my to do list.  Or even if it means deciding to paint or bake instead of sitting in front of another crime show–which feels relaxing for the moment, but doesn’t impact my sense of well being in the long run.

What was devastating in the book was when the government decided to make a time capsule of sorts so that if civilization were destroyed, people of the future would have an understanding of the age.  Inside the capsule, though, was a disc that contained information about how civilization worked: the internet, government systems, medical advances.  Our narrator, who is telling the story from her mid twenties about her 12 year old self said: “Not mentioned on the disc was the smell of cut grass in high summer, the taste of oranges on our lips, the way sand felt beneath our bare feet, or our definitions of love and friendship, our worries and our dreams, our mercies and our kindnesses and our lies,” (267).  These are the things of actual life.  The things that she shares throughout the length of the book itself.  And that, is a beautiful and clever idea from the author: it is the stuff of stories that make life worth living.  (It reminded me a lot of this book, which I also wrote about here.)

And so, I’ve tried to be in pursuit of these things that remind me of the goodness of life; the things that store up strength for later and can provide true comfort.  For me, that has meant art and cooking real meals and going for runs in Prospect Park to soak in the season.  Having these rhythms in place keeps me grounded when life seems to throw everything else off.  And that in and of itself, constitutes a miracle.

On packing an apartment & Fahrenheit 451

I started a new graduate program and although I am doing one class at a time, it has, as I feared it might, taken a toll on my reading-and-writing-for-pleasure life.  The good news is my current class is called Literature for Older Children, so the books I’m reading and the thinking I’m doing aligns quite nicely with my passion for literacy.  But it also means I have a stack of 4 books I’ve finished that I want to write about.  I chose today’s book based on the other current time-stealer of my life: moving.  

My new lease a few blocks away starts next Saturday, so I spent last night packing and ended up with 20 boxes of books.  I admire when people move here with a suitcase or two, and part of me craves the simplicity of space that accompanies such a move.  But I remember when I moved to New York almost ten years ago now and felt  I needed to bring my books with me so that I would remember who I was in this brand new city. And through 5–almost 6–apartments I have packed and unpacked and added to the stacks.  Handling every book I own last night was an incredible experience in reflection because I began to see my story in the conglomeration of texts: my elementary reading self in my mid eighties copies of The Wizard of Oz and Number the Stars, the eight Virginia Woolfs I read in half a semester and how I was never the same again, the striking poetry contained in the prose of The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy that cultivated the kind of book I love to read as an adult.  
In keeping with my New Years resolution to read book I already own, I finished Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury a few weeks ago and it reignited (see what I did there?) my passion for not just reading as much as I can, but for getting as many books in front of my students as possible.  Reading in 2013 the futuristic book Bradbury wrote the book in 1950 was fascinating (and reminded me of reading Super Sad True Love Story a few years back) because though his portrayal of futuristic technological and political powers were close enough to feel incredibly eerie.  
Montag, the main character, is a fireman–and in his time that means they start fires to burn books rather than put fires out.  Books cause people to think and to question–they disrupt ones mental “peace”–so the government has decided to do away with them.  Montag begins to feel restless and decides to quietly figure out what it is about books that makes them so dangerous.  
He is asked by a closet former reader: “How did you get shaken up? What knocked the torch out of your hands?” 
Montag replies: “I don’t know.  We have everything we need to be happy, but we aren’t happy.  Something’s missing.  I looked around.  The only thing I positively knew was gone was the books I’d burned in ten or twelve years.  So I thought books might help.” 
“It’s not the books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books…Take it where you can find it, in old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself.  Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget.  There is nothing magical in them at all.  The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” 
Yes. And so upon reading this book I was re-reminded to keep my eyes open for the mysteries and to ask questions.  I was re-reminded that if my life feels off-kilter, chances are I’m forgetting to dwell in the details that make life rich and instead choosing to occupy myself with errands and to-do lists.  Packing up my own books reminded me of the stories that enrich my story and grew my desire to share this with the 100 students I see everyday: that they might question the world and seek beauty and desire understanding.  And I can’t do that unless I am living in such a way myself.   

Reading Year in Review and Top Ten Books of 2011.

My blog is about to celebrate its 5th anniversary next month.  I wrote my first post on January 6th, 2007, partly to slow down and think about what I was reading again and partly in an effort to get more comfortable with sharing my writing in a “public” space (I would like to thank my 4 loyal readers at this time: Mom, Dad, Alison Covey, Kendra Bloom).  Every year when I’m home for Christmas I read every post I wrote over the year and choose the top ten best books I’ve read.

Usually, it takes me many hours to reread my blog posts for the year. As I read, I take notes and end up with a list at least 20 contenders for the coveted top ten.  I have to do some serious thinking and rereading of posts to decide which books had the biggest impact on my thought life–and then spend some serious time laughing about the nerdy ways I spend my time.  This year was not so difficult.  Sadly, I don’t think I can attribute that to any increased coolness to my life, but I do think I have a few answers/self justifications for the reasons why this year I had only 23 posts (2008 holds the all-time high of 97):

  • The spring was filled with YA books that enriched my teaching life and a side project I’m working on, but weren’t necessarily significant enough for me to subject my loyal readers (see above) to. 
  •  The summer, normally the two months that I read the highest number of books, was filled with Infinite Jest, a book that I felt I needed to finish before I posted anything about it.  (Then, the fall happened and I still have 5 additional posts about Infinite Jest sitting in my drafts.) 
  • This fall, I got caught up reading books for and with my students. Many of my Saturday mornings, normally my drink-a-hot-beverage-and-write-about-my-reading time, were filled with training for my half marathon.  Also, my book club choice was For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway, which is not a read-before-you-fall-asleep kind of book: I would make it literally 3 pages and fall asleep. I’m finally about to finish it, which I owe to traveling 3 out of the last 5 weekends on U.S. Airways, who does not offer in-flight television.  

All that to say, it is interesting to look back on a year through the lens of reading. I am nerdily excited for what 2012 will bring in my reading life…and the reflections that accompany good books.  As for the Top Ten, I have to credit Margaret, who is the sole other member of my book club, because six of our choices made the top ten list this year. So, in no particular order:

The Hours by Michael Cunningham/Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (rereads)
These books have to be paired together and were two of the most thought provoking reads of the year.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
This book received an insane amount of press when it was published last year.  Overall, especially because my book club read read The Corrections first, I throughly enjoyed getting inside the mind of Franzen.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteygart
Not especially well written, but it definitely was the instigator of many great conversations and some science-fiction/technology induced nightmares.

Beloved by Toni Morrison
I think this was the most historically significant, jarring book that I read this year, and combined with its lyrical prose, it left me speechless.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Short. Beautiful. Inspiring.

Bossypants by Tina Fey
The most enjoyable book of the year.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Harder than my book club’s run with the Russians a few years ago and encompassing almost all of my summer, this book was well worth it.

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years  by Donald Miller (reread)
This book was a non-fiction, good reminder of all things I love about story and life.

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen(reread)
This book has become one of my yearly rereads and I’ve written about it a few times.  I spend the quiet, early summer mornings I have at my parents’ house on their screened in porch reading just a chapter or two a day so that I can savor and soak in it during my entire visit.  This year it was my respite from Infinite Jest, to make sure that reading was not only speaking into the my academically-minded side of my brain, but also my soul.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
I read the first book of this series as soon as it came out, on recommendation of our Teachers College professional developer.  I never finished the series because I felt like I knew enough to talk about it with kids and had so many other books to read.  However, after the Epic-Literary-Reread book club on Harry Potter with my students last year, I thought that it would be cool to do the same thing with The Hunger Games this year.  I read these books in about a week and was amazed to see all of the entry points for young readers to have uber literary conversations. I have also been amazed at how many of my adult friends have been reading the series and are eager to discuss. A post-movie discussion party is in the works.

Cheers to reading and a 2012 filled with more writing about it!

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is a dystopian, slightly science fiction novel that takes place in England in the late 1990s.  It is narrated in what feels very stream-of-conscious by a 31 year old woman named Kathy H., who is remembering her child and young adulthood at a boarding school called Hailsham.  She narrates the way that I often talk–she has an initial point, but the details of narrative are built into the back story she provides while getting to that point.  Her narration has a deep tone of nostalgia and it is clear from the beginning that she is trying to make sense of what her life has become and the fate she knows she cannot avoid.  It is this tension that drives the book: the hope that the truth somehow didn’t apply to the characters.

What I have been considering since I finished the book is how do we, as people, handle the truths about life that we accumulate along the way, especially the ones we do not wish to believe, not matter how confident we are of their existence?

One of the most poignant moments of the book for me was when another character, Tommy, faces the reality of his situation.  He is in a car with Kathy, and asks her to pull over.  He walks into the woods at the side of the road and screams his lungs out.  The injustice of reality is too much for him to bear, and he can think of no other way to respond.

Later, it appears that Tommy and Kathy have succumbed to the “safety” of knowing what is inevitable.  Perhaps they feel foolish for ever wishing existence to be more.  Kathy repeatedly talks about their knowing when they were children at Hailsham, but they just went right on playing and pretending.

When does it become naive and adolescent to fight what is bound to happen?  Are there certain realities that can be fought?

Is it ok to accept what is?  What do we do with the angst that remains? Live a life with trips to an isolated wood so we can scream our lungs out about it?

(Don’t continue reading if you plan on reading the book or seeing the movie.  All conclusions drawn so far are thought provoking without the ending. But I had such a strong opinion of the ending that it is impossible for me not to write about it).  My biggest disappointment in the book is that the characters don’t fight (very hard, anyway).  I wanted to see them rise and buck authority and defy the life that was set for them, but instead they got angry and then settled into sadness and nostalgia. The book is ironically called, then, Never Let Me Go…but they do. And I kind of hate that.